Israeli Anarchism – Being Young, Queer, and Radical in the Promised Land

Interview: Israeli Anarchism – Being Young, Queer, and Radical in the Promised Land

Yossi is a young resident of Jerusalem and a member of the International Solidarity Movement. He is part of many social movements in Israel and Palestine, including Anarchists Against the Wall and Black Laundry, a radical queer group. Yossi is currently working at the Alternative Information Center. Here he speaks about anarchism in Israel, it's relationship to the Palestinian struggle, and radical anarchist and queer culture.

Interviewed by Aaron Lakoff

Aaron: Can you tell me about the anarchist movement in Israel?

Yossi: Well, anarchism in Israel, or may we say in Palestine, was never a big movement or a popular movement. It’s because zionism was a nationalist movement, and most of the refugees who came here held beliefs of nationalism and zionism, and supported the idea of a Jewish state. And they chose to come here and not to other places. They chose to come into Palestine and build the Jewish state. So anarchism was very strange to them - it was not in their agenda. Although, there were a lot of socialists coming here, but they were socialist and nationalist at the same time. They were not trying to overcome the nationalist visions of socialism. So for historical reasons, anarchism was very small here.
Also, in the Palestinian or Arab culture, anarchism is not well known. It isn’t a popular stream of thinking. There are no anarchist philosophers in Arab culture. So for those reasons, we don’t have a historical background that goes back to the 19th century, or even the middle of the 20th century.
The first anarchists who were here came to Israel and then left back to Europe, understanding that Israel wasn’t there place. Quite a lot of anarchists were born to zionist families and chose anarchism as their ideology, but again it was very small groups.
In the 60s there were a few more because of the student movement in Europe, and people were influenced by all the revolutions outside of Palestine and Israel. You can see only at the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s more and more anarchist groups coming together, but mostly from the same milieus. In the 80s the movement grew bigger because of punk. Punk fans came into the anarchist movement. The animal rights movement was really big here and still is big and it was very anarchist in the beginning. All of this was happening in the 80s and 90s. There were beginning to be more and more books and pamphlets about anarchism in the 90s. At the end of the 90s more people became anarchists because of the wave of anti-globalization that was sweeping the world, and this came to Israel as well. Up until the beginning of the Intifada, there were many groups who were anarchist, anarchist-affiliated, or non-hierarchal.

A: Going back to 1948, you mentioned anarchists came to Israel and found it wasn’t a place for them. But if we look back to Emma Goldman’s time, just prior to 1948, there were large Jewish anarchist movements throughout Europe and the United States. Isn’t it surprising that none of them found their way into Israel?

Y: Well, the anarchist movement hated the Zionist movement. It’s not only anarchists – there were communists as well. Many communists came here and discovered that all those slogans of socialism were really just socialism for Jews. There were so many racist campaigns. One of them was Hebrew Labour – to make capitalist Jews take all the Jewish labour, and this was the biggest campaign of the Zionist movement in Palestine. People came here and found that their communist views had nothing to do with these racist policies happening here. A lot of them left and went to places like Spain, but many of them had no choice but to stay here because of Hitler and because they couldn’t go to the USA.
There were some anarchists that came here as refugees, but they didn’t want to come here. You can see all along an anarchist history which is quite Jewish. They were very, very anti-zionist – always criticizing the zionist movement, saying it was not answering the problems of the Jewish people.

A: You mentioned different issues that anarchists in Israel have been involved with over the decades, and then you mentioned the Intifada. Then recently there has been the Anarchists Against the Wall. Can you talk a bit about this group and what you do?

Y: When the Intifada came, there were two processes going on at the same time. There was the mainstream left, what we call the Zionist left in Israel, which became much more right wing. They began to show their real racist face again. The radical left became more and more radicalized at the same time. You can say that both the mainstream and radical left were becoming polarized. This process brought more actions into the radical left.
During the Oslo-era, the radical left was much more quiet. Today, since the beginning of the second Intifada, there is a demo almost every day. So many new movements came to life, working really hard against the situation. All of this energy, and people seeing what was happening in the occupied territories, made people more alienated against the state. People could see that the state is the enemy when the state is shooting at you. It ceases to be theoretical, and becomes very much alive to see the true face of the state.
When the apartheid wall was beginning to be built in 2002 and 2003, many people – very young Tel Avivian people, punks, gays, lesbians, and transsexuals – came to a village in Palestine. It was a very conservative village, but they were invited by the village to come there and to build a peace tent against the wall. This was in Mas’ha. That was for 5 months, and it was to make Israelis and internationals realize what was happening with the fence, what it was, where it was going to be built, etc.
All throughout those 5 months, a new thing came about in the radical left. It was the first time we were meeting Palestinians daily and living with them. It was a new thing for Palestinians as well. This was really a place of dialogue.
Out of this came a very close relationship between anarchist Jews and Palestinians. Of course anarchists were always against the occupation and the oppression of the zionist state, but I believe that this camp brought these issues into our daily lives. I think that this was the first steps of the Anarchists Against the Wall.
We began doing actions in the last days of the camp. We did direct actions against the wall in other villages. We tried to stop the building of the wall in Mas’ha, and the camp was destroyed by the army. They ordered us to never return there. This was the beginning of a direct action group that was anarchist-organized, non-hierarchical, and directly democratic. We began doing more actions in villages all over Palestine and all along the route of the wall.
Then there was one action again in Mas’ha when one of the anarchists against the wall was shot in the legs, seriously hurt, and almost died on the way to the hospital. This was in late December, 2003. Before that day, the group always changed its name. We were Jews Against Ghettos in one action, the Mas’ha Group on one day – we never stuck with one name. But on that day, we used the name Anarchists Against Fences.
We got a lot of media on this day, much more than we had gotten before. The media was really interested in us. People actually began asking what anarchism was. It was not very known in Israel – people knew the word, but they didn’t know what it meant. After that action, we became much more active in the fight against the wall or against the occupation because a lot of Palestinian villages began to recognize that there is an Israeli group which is coming and doing stuff in Palestine. Palestinians started to rebel against the wall as well as it came closer to their homes, and there were many villages, especially Budrus – one of the symbols of non-violent opposition to the wall – when we were there for almost a year to stop the construction as much as possible. We were really going to Budrus almost every week for a long time. Every day people got shot. Some days people were killed. Until now, there were 6 or 7 Palestinians shot dead by the Israeli army in non-violent demonstrations against the fence.
These Palestinians were shot dead at demonstrations when Israelis were not there at the time, because the army does not like to use live ammunition when there are Israelis in the area. So we were acting as well a bit as human shields. This is not why we were there, but the fact that we were there made the army a bit less violent. The army thinks we have better blood.

A: When a Palestinian is shot at a non-violent demonstration, it falls under the radar of the media. The interesting thing was that when the Israeli anarchist was shot in Mas’ha, it did make it into the Israeli and international media because it was an Israeli being shot by an Israeli. How did that action on that day change what you were doing as anarchists and how the rest of Israel saw you?

Y: First of all, we always thought, ‘We’re Jewish. We’re not going to be shot by the army. It doesn’t happen.’ That’s why there was such a media hype – the army just doesn’t shoot Jews. Settlers are always doing much worse stuff than we do. They act very violently towards the soldiers, but no one would ever dream of shooting them.
This was the day that I understood really that the state was my enemy. The army is my enemy. I have nothing to do with the army. I had been shot before with rubber bullets and tear gas, but that was my first time seeing someone being shot with live bullets. It made a lot of us realize that this army and this state are not ours.
In the Israeli public and the Israeli media, we were actually embraced quite warmly for the first two days. A Jew was shot, it’s not nice. People thought that since we did destroy the fence, we should be punished for that, but not by being shot.
As there were more demonstrations, more people kept getting shot, and even Israelis being injured, we did generate more media attention. But the media started treating us like hooligans. They accused us of acting irresponsibly and affiliating ourselves with terrorists.
Actually, in the last year you can see much more repression against the Israeli left. Tali Fahima is one example. She was never in the anarchist movement, but she is in jail now for doing things that they could have arrested any of us for; contacting a terrorist, violating a closed military zone, etc. The repression against us is becoming more severe. The state is taking us to court, although they lose. They haven’t even won one case yet, but it’s very important for the state to take us to court and to take our energy and our money.

A: There are many groups in Israel who are working in the peace movement to put an end to the occupation; Gush Shalom, Ta Ayush, and Peace Now are just a few. How do the anarchists differ from these groups in their actions?

Y: First of all, there are many groups in the peace movement who are very close to us. Black Laundry, for example, is a queer group against the occupation who are working a lot with the Anarchists Against the Wall and vice versa. Ta Ayush is quite active, and we work with them. We are not organized the same way, we don’t work in the same methods, but we do work together.
In terms of our ideology, we don’t have a list of our demands. Of course, most of us would like a ‘no state solution’. We are against any kind of separation, and we are against the wall no matter where it is going to be built. We are against the Palestinian Authority as well. We see the PA as another tool of oppression. We will work with them sometimes, but we still don’t support the PA like Gush Shalom does.
We don’t agree on a lot of things as well. We act differently to the police than most groups. We would never inform the police on an action. But in the end we all support each other and work together. There are arguments, but we maintain a dialogue. There was a coalition against the fence of many groups in the radical left, and there were no big problems in this. If there are problems that are so crucial, all those endless debates about anarcho-communism or anarcho-syndicalism become insignificant. We do quite well in Israel, and the radical left is acting together all the time.

A: Do you have any criticisms about how the other Israeli leftist groups are operating?

Y: Of course! And they have many criticisms of us. They could say that they anarchists are always running from one village to another, that we’re not organized, that we’re doing a lot of reckless things. We have similar criticisms of other groups – that they can’t do spontaneous things at all, they have strict rules. But this has nothing to do with the fact that we’re still working together.

A: You mentioned that anarchism doesn’t have a tradition in Palestinian culture. How do you feel that anarchism relates to the Palestinian struggle?

Y: Of course, we’re always in demonstrations with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, nationalists, racist people, and we fight alongside them for the same goals. But there’s always a problem; how do we uphold anarchism, animal right, women’s rights, and queer rights while working with people who are against them? It’s hard. We work with Palestinians all the time and we still say we don’t want a Palestinian state. I’m not fighting for a Palestinian state, I’m fighting for the end of the occupation and that’s the main goal. And we’re not alone in fighting for this. There are many Palestinians who are not anarchist, but who are on the left – communists, socialists. There are so many that are fighting for the same goal; a one-state solution, and this is very close to our goal.
I still believe that you need to fight alongside national-liberationists sometimes, because the main thing within that is to liberate themselves from the oppression of the other. Before you liberate yourself from the oppression of your own society, you need to liberate yourself from the oppression of the other society, which is usually much more cruel. This is evident in Palestine.
First, we need to end the occupation and give the Palestinians their rights. After that, we can speak about how we want to live here. If the Palestinians chose to have a one-state solution, we will be with them. If they chose to have their own state, we will be with them. We have nothing to say about it. There are Palestinians who are working with us for the same kind of solution.

A: Here you have anarchists who protest with Hamas, Fatah, and many factions of the Palestinian struggle. In essence, they’re still fighting for the same goal. Where do you view the anarchist role in this? To influence the Palestinians to adopt an anarchist society?

Y: It’s important to see that we’re not working in Palestine to educate. We are the occupiers, after all. We’re not there to tell them what to do, but we’re there to help them liberate themselves from our state’s oppression. That’s our main goal. We’re not there to educate them about animal rights or other things we’re fighting for. We do have conversations with them or to influence on a personal level, but we’re not there as a group to change their minds. We would never hand out leaflets in Arabic explaining what anarchism is and why you should join us, because this is not our way.
However, we do try to influence when it comes to women’s rights. When we speak with the villages, we say we want the women in the demonstrations. Women from our group try to arrange women’s activities with Palestinians to empower women against the occupation. I think the main thing we should remember is that we’re not there to educate, because while they’re being occupied by our state we have no reason to come there and preach.

A: On a personal level, what does it mean to you to be an anarchist, but also a Jewish person living in the Jewish state?

J: Yeah, there’s something funny about it. Being Jewish in the Diaspora, as I understand it, is much different. You feel your Jewish identity. But you don’t feel that in Israel. You don’t care about Judaism in Israel. We say fuck it. It’s like Christianity in the USA. Do you ask anarchist Christians in the US whether they feel Christian in their daily lives? No. They’re atheist, they’re anti-Christian, and they’re the anti-Christ most of the time. My feeling here is that I do have some relationship with Judaism. I am an atheist of course, but Judaism and Hebrew is part of my culture. So I do have something Jewish inside of me like a Canadian has something Canadian inside of them. But again, I don’t feel Jewish in the religious way of it. I don’t care if I marry a Jew or a non-Jew, or about ‘keeping the Jewish people'. I have no problem with assimilation. My culture is Hebrew culture, Israeli culture. This has nothing to do with religion at all.

A: Can you explain the group Black Laundry and its relationship with the Palestinian struggle and the anarchist movement?

Y: Black Laundry was a group formed at the beginning of the second Intifada, like many others. It was formed in Tel Aviv, just prior to the pride parade. At the pride parade, there are a lot of handsome, naked boys dancing on big trucks with lots of corporations trying to sell you stuff. It’s quite disgusting most of the time, very capitalist.
It was the first pride parade after the Intifada began, and we came there with the slogan, ‘no pride in the occupation!’. We were trying to say there is no real liberation without liberating our neighbors. We, as a queer community, have an interest to stop the oppression of other groups, and other groups have the interests to stop the oppression of us. We try to always connect struggles; Palestinian liberation, animal rights, queer rights, sexual freedom, body oppression, capitalist oppression. All of this we try to connect, usually working in a performance-art way. We try to make a show out of our work. We work a lot inside the queer community about the Palestinians and about teaching people that their fight is part of a bigger fight against oppression. Being gay and rich in the center of Tel Aviv is not liberating yourself because it’s not liberating your community.
About the Palestinian struggle, Black Laundry has never done actions inside Palestine. People in our group always go to Palestinian demonstrations, but we have never organized our own activities there. Only in Mas’ha was there a good connection between us and many women in the village, and there were some women’s meetings with Black Laundry.
It’s always very hard. You’re not allowed to be queer in the Palestinian culture. I work quite a lot in occupied Palestine, and I’m not out most of the time. It’s not something I would mention in a demonstration. But again, I am not there to educate the Palestinians or tell them how to act.
And it’s not like Israel is the most liberated society, either. The main queer population in Israel who are being oppressed are the Palestinian-Israelis. If the Shin Beit (Israeli secret service) catches two Palestinian men in an Israeli park having sex, they often force them to become collaborators by saying that if they don’t cooperate, they will tell their families. This is a death threat in some instances. There have been numerous incidences when queer Palestinians have been forced to become collaborators. A lot of them are fleeing to Israel, and they are illegally here, but no one is giving them the rights of a refugee. When they are caught, they are usually sent back to their villages. Even queer Palestinian-Israeli couples aren’t allowed to stay together.
So again, it’s Israel which is not good for queers. Many queer Jews are being oppressed here in Jerusalem, so it’s not as if the Palestinian society is dark and cruel and the Israeli society is open and free.

A: Often times you hear that Israel is remarkably open towards queer culture….

Y: No, it’s the center of Tel Aviv which is open for queers who have money and who are consumers or part of the system. It’s not open for poor queers who are coming from Jewish-oriental families, it’s not open for Palestinians, and it’s not open for religious queers. Israel can say one thing, but usually they act differently. The situation here is a lot like in the US, and you wouldn’t say the US is queer-friendly. Maybe San Francisco, but not in general.

(Aaron Lakoff is a member of the International Solidarity Movement, and a
journalist with CKUT community radio in Montreal. He is currently
travelling and working throughout Palesine. To view his previous writing
and photos, visit http://aaron.resist.ca. He can be reached at
aaroninpalesine@hotmail.com)